When Ricky He was filming the climactic scene in Disney’s Freaky Friday movie, he couldn’t believe that he was at the exact place where he first decided he wanted to pursue entertainment as a career: the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver.
Ricky He, who was born and raised in Vancouver, had gone to an arts high school and studied drama, but when he went to college, he decided to be realistic about his chances of success as a performer.
“I was like, ‘Let’s be honest.’ This acting thing is fun, but it’s a high school thing,” He told CAAM. “Sure, I’m doing high school plays, but who’s going to cast an Asian person in a movie? There’s no future there.”
So he decided to apply to the University of British Columbia’s psychology program. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was unsatisfied. One day, he was at a John Legend concert at the Orpheum, and he remembers being so moved by Legend’s performance that he knew he had to go back to acting and singing and performing.
“When we went back to the Orpheum to shoot [for Freaky Friday], I went back upstairs to the balcony seat where I was sitting for the John Legend concert,” he remembers. The scene was a school-wide scavenger hunt, which his character Adam is in charge of, and it was a full-blown musical number. “I saw the incredible set with the finish line on the stage, and thought, ‘Wow, this is full circle. It’s so crazy.’”
Freaky Friday is a new remake of a the classic story of a mother Katherine (Heidi Blickenstaff) and daughter Ellie (Cozi Zuehisdorff) who switch bodies and are able to see each other from an entirely different perspective. The new music-laden comedy, which premieres on Disney Channel on August 10, didn’t have a romantic lead that was written as ethnically Asian. When Ricky He came in to audition, he was initially reading for a supporting role of Karl, the daughter Ellie’s best guy friend.
After he read, he felt everyone in the room felt he wasn’t quite right for the role. He was asked to take a short break and come back to read for a different role, a character named Adam. He remembers he got some tacos, went back into his car, scrolled through his emails to figure out who Adam was, and when he realized Adam is the main romantic interest to Ellie, he got so excited that he started slapping his steering wheel.
“When casting the character of Adam, we were looking for a guy with charm and leadership abilities who was immediately identifiable as our leading man,” Executive Producer Susan Cartsonis told CAAM via email. “And Ricky—well he kind of embodied who Adam was: a leader with a great sense of fun and a sense of humor and sensitivity to other people.”
Though he may also have a side of himself that’s less squeaky-clean: Cartsonis shares a story about how the song he sang in the second round of auditions was perhaps not PG enough for a Disney kid’s movie.
“[Ricky and Cozi] met in the outer office and had instant chemistry,” she says. “They were magic in the room, reading the scene, and then Ricky was asked to sing.”
But then, his rendition of “A Whole New World,” from Disney’s Aladdin he prepared didn’t go so well. They thought he must be nervous.
“One of the execs, I think it was our creative exec and music producer on the show, Steve Vincent, brilliantly asked him if he wrote music and if he’d sing one of his own songs,” Cartsonis continues. “Well he does and he did, but he freaked me out because it was a super sexy song and well, we were at Disney Channel—and it was a little too racy. I was frozen in place, and Ricky told me later I looked like inside I was screaming ‘No! No!’—but it proved he could sing and was no problem for anyone. And he got the job. The execs all loved him.”
“Essentially, I was this random Chinese Canadian kid from Vancouver, and they sent down to Los Angeles to do a screen test with the star, Cozi Zuehlsdorff,” He says. “Just to be flown down there was beyond my imagination that I couldn’t have been more grateful for that experience alone. So when I heard that I got the role, it was incredible.”
This August, there’s a lot of hype around the release of Crazy Rich Asians, a rare Hollywood studio romantic comedy starring Asians and Asian Americans. But it’s still pretty rare to see an Asian American— especially an Asian American man—in a the role of a romantic lead.
In Freaky Friday, there’s a slow-motion scene of Adam casually strolling over from the locker area to both mother, Katherine, and daughter, Ellie—who have swapped bodies, unbeknownst to him—and they’re both equally dizzy-eyed over his mere presence.
“If you watch the scene, there’s some extremely corny music playing in the background, which I loved,” he says, laughing. “Cause look, Freaky Friday is a family movie and also a comedy. So as much as it’s very flattering to be the romantic lead and at the center of that physical attraction, I definitely thought of it more as a funny scene. But it also really expands the idea of what qualifies someone to be romantic lead. I think we’re really changing that idea, to show it could be anyone of all shapes and sizes and colors.”
“Honestly, I look forward to seeing every scene Ricky is in,” says Cartsonis. “I find him to be so insanely funny and charming. In the musical number “Oh, Biology” he melts your heart—and wait till you hear his singing voice. In the hallway right before this number he has a flirty little scene with Ellie in which he improvises the last line. I’m generally a fan of sticking to script, but the director, Steve Carr, immediately recognized Ricky’s comedy gifts and Ricky’s line about ‘arugula’ always makes me laugh—you’ll see!”
Though acting is He’s main concentration at the moment, he is also working on a mix-tape he hopes to release next year.
In the meantime, check him out on Freaky Friday, which premieres as a Disney Channel Original Movie on August 10, 2018.
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Ada Tseng writes for Public Radio International, NBC News Asian America, CAAM and The Washington Post. She hosts the podcasts Saturday School and Bullet Train, and she’s the creator of Haikus With Hotties.
This article is made possible by Comcast.